Why the Upside of Plastics Is Its Downside
The Graduate was the highest grossing film in 1967. About a recent college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who has to decide what to do with his life, the film is a story of the unexpected. For me though, I just remember one word: Plastics
Do take a look at this one minute excerpt from the film:
While the OECD presents The Global Plastics Outlook in a new report, today, we’ll just look at the plastics plight that it describes.
Our Plastics Plight
With plastics, its biggest plus created the downside. Plastic is amazing. It is moldable, has a high strength-to-weight ratio, and resists physical and chemical degradation. Also, it easily replaces other materials like glass or wood. When we add plastic’s low cost to all of this, it becomes irresistible.
And that is the problem.
Plastics production is soaring as is plastics waste. We’ve been able to recycle only nine percent of our plastics waste. Close to half winds up in sanitary landfills while the remainder sits in uncontrolled dumpsites. Found in fresh water and other ecosystems, plastic leakage is a massive problem. Rarely mentioned, the plastics problem includes a carbon footprint primarily created at the beginning of its life cycle when plastic is produced from fossil fuels.
When we think of plastic, countless items can come to mind. It might be a straw or a LEGO. Then we can add food packaging, cable insulation, drink bottles, and automotive parts. More recently, Covid’s PPPs added even more plastic to our daily routine.
This graphic sums it all up. Under production, we start with fossil-and bio-based plastics. Then in the middle of the diagram, waste takes us to recycling and mismanagement. And then finally, we see where the environment is affected.
Our Bottom Line: The Tragedy of the Commons
Because the air, the oceans, and a subway car are shared resources, many of us mistreat them. Called the tragedy of the commons, cows are allowed to overgraze a shared meadow, we overfish the ocean, and factory owners pollute the air. The reason is the “commons.” When no one owns a resource, there is less incentive to care for it.
Similarly, we discard our plastic into the “commons.” Owned by no one (and everyone), the destination for our discarded plastic is abused. And yet, a bit like Odysseus needed a restraint to avoid the allure of the Sirens, we too have an attraction to plastics. With plastic, it is tough to avoid contributing to the tragedy of the commons.
Originally published at https://econlife.com on March 1, 2022.